A couple of months ago I bought “Lost Battles” by Philip Sabin from Amazon. It was recommended to me by a friend and I was not disappointed after finishing it. Not to digress any further it left me thinking about how the actual casualty rate in Ancient battles, excepting major military failure or genius, was pretty low compared to what “historical” movies show us. We think (or rather movies make us believe) all were a bloodbath (and Teutoburg Forest or Cannae are) when we imagine ancient clashes however in most cases it was just a matter of morale and how confident or mentally strong was each side. Yes, there are cases where armies let themselves be butchered rather than give ground (Thermopylae comes to mind of course, as well as the Swiss Guard last stand in 1527, and I am sure there are plenty more examples of sheer stubbornness or simply lack of choice) however most of the time a part of the army would rout or the enemy would maneuver in such a way that it will demoralize their opponents (“we are surrounded!”) and make the prospect of fighting seem disadvantageous.
Coming round back to wargaming, I started this hobby with Warhammer Fantasy 6th Edition. It didn’t occur to me then (because of the lack of experience) but I would now categorize WFB (and W40k for that matter) as a “Kill Game” as its main damage mechanic. You roll the die and you kill miniatures in droves and that stacks up with Combat Resolution and we have a result. Sure, the loser must test to break (or not, with enough special rules) and he might run and if you catch him he dies. I hear you. But the damage mechanic is the “Kill”.
Many years later I discovered other systems and other ways of dealing with damage, namely the impact that casualties or momentum or movement has on the morale of the troops. These systems are generally built around much less (it appears to me, you might disagree) dice throwing and with a bigger emphasis on combat modifiers. And when casualties are taken it’s not actually diminishing the unit that suffered them but it’s changing its state (for example from Fresh to Spent, from Ordered to Shaken, etc). Even if casualties are actually marked down or miniatures are removed the main engine behind remains the “Morale”.
Going a bit further with my thoughts, “Kill” games seem generally faster and simpler to play. It’s just an illusion really because:
First, you need to learn the various statistics that are used to determine casualties (and in my mind WFB Hit-Wound-Save is really simple and I knew by heart most of the statistics for common troops across all armies however it can be daunting at first).
Second, these games need miniatures (and plenty) so you can actually remove stuff. Sure, you can play the 5 monster army and have movement done in 4 minutes but generally you’ll have plenty of stuff from main regiments, support troops, artillery/magicians, etc. and that eats some time. Add to that battlefield complexity and you might be looking at 15-20 minutes (I know my Orc horde did) just to have it all done.
Third, there is almost always an army composition engine behind every army and sometimes army composition is the deciding factor in who will win right from the start (rare, but it happens).
The appeal? Well, the actual removal of enemy miniatures is a warm fuzzy feeling that I can completely relate to, be it from a healthy cannonball to the heart of that Dragon or from rolling 120 Ork Assault dice and butchering those 10 poor Space Marines (it was more like 5, but anyway).
“Morale” games seem to appeal to an older crowd. They gain popularity with folks that want to play real battles with historical armies. There is no army composition most of the time (for historically accurate battles) as the troops are decided… well… by history. When there is army composition it tends to have troops that are more or less your average human person and where the fighting prowess is determined not by Weapons Skill or Strength but by Morale Rating, Discipline and Movement Speed (or by the troops being able to execute complex maneuvers).
These games seem sluggish and complex. As someone who doesn’t even know the difference between the French or British uniforms in the Nap era (*shock* *horror*) I can assure you that in fact while they might be complex they are not as sluggish as imagined. What they do require is a more subtle approach and they usually punish greatly gung-ho attitudes (but those actually make the most fun yet regretted battles, as someone who witnessed a frontal cavalry charge against phalanx in Clash of Empires – the cavalry got crushed).
What about “Kill” games, you say. Don’t they punish gung-ho also? Well, my friend, “Kill” games live and die by that sword. Gung-ho attitudes will get you swiftly kicked in the groin in any “Kill” game and rightly so. The system is designed to remove miniatures so exposing troops to unnecessary dangers on the count of risky (foolish) or brave (foolish) or even calculated (foolish) moves will greatly increase your chances to pack your army faster than your opponent.
I am enjoying both approaches at the moment and I find myself eager to play a “Kill” Ancients game but I also want a “Morale” WW2 game. I’ve got “Clash of Empires” for my “Kill” part, but what about the “Morale”?